Fake news and freedom of expression in Southeast Asia

Paige Occeñola
Fake news and freedom of expression in Southeast Asia


The struggle against disinformation and fake news in Southeast Asia goes hand-in-hand with the fight to keep democratic spaces online open


  • What’s unique about the context of the Southeast Asian region is that fake news and disinformation operate within a framework where existing laws already inhibit freedom of expression.
  • In countries like the Philippines, Indonesia, and Myanmar, disinformation and hateful rhetoric online have had serious consequences for public opinion.
  • In cases like Cambodia, Thailand, Vietnam, and Singapore, where there are existing laws that curtail freedom of expression, social media has become the new avenue for government to exercise control over free speech.

MANILA, Philippines – While disinformation and propaganda are tales as old as time, there is no denying that social media algorithms have played a significant role in amplifying their reach.

With news feeds curated to feed our echo chambers and low media literacy, it’s easy to see how people fall for the catchy headlines and become unwitting accomplices to the propagation of fake news.

The problem of fake news is exacerbated in Southeast Asian countries where Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) member-states rank uniformly low on the World Press Freedom Index, with Indonesia only ranking as high as 124th out of 180 and Vietnam as low as 175th in 2017. 

Social media plays an important role both as a platform for dissent and as space where disinformation can thrive, thanks to algorithms that privilege a user’s preferences. With rates of internet and mobile penetration on the rise, the region will be vulnerable to disinformation online if digital literacy rates are not able to keep up.

Ed Legaspi, executive director of the Southeast Asian Press Alliance (SEAPA), explained how old disinformation tactics have been amplified, thanks to social media.

“‘Fake news’ is a common phenomenon in the region and a common topic in country politics nowadays. My colleagues from Indonesia, Malaysia, Myanmar, and Thailand all confirm that these have been going on for quite some time – but [Donald] Trump just made gave a convenient name for it.”

“There is consensus that it is the political establishment that has actively mobilized and used supporters to manipulate public opinion to their favor, through fake news, and also through hyper-partisan propaganda. These strategies have been in place even before the rise of Facebook as a platform, when comments and forum sections of websites are targeted to promote partisan, mainly pro-government content, or in the case of opposition blogs, counter content. The rise of Facebook has only made this phenomenon more virulent, as government is now unable to use traditional URL blocking, but also because they have embraced the platform in their communications strategy through official channels and the employment of trolls and bot farms.”

Legaspi also noted how the term has been used to dismiss critics of governments: 

“There is a trend that Southeast Asian leaders have, like Trump, used the term to label critical reporting against their leadership and policies. The key difference is that this happens against a backdrop of entrenched media repression (except perhaps for the Philippines, Indonesia and Thailand), so being called a fake news outlet can be used as a pretext for clampdown, as we have seen recently in Cambodia.

In the reports below, we look at cases of social media and fake news in the region, or in some cases, how the term has been conflated to stifle press freedom and freedom of expression.

Fake news, hate speech, and disinformation


In August of 2017 a website with the url “http://www.cnn-money-report.com/” reported that Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah invested $720 million in a tech startup called “The Bitcoin Code”. There are no reports to corroborate this claim nor to vouch for the legitimacy of the startup.


Fake news and hoaxes are rampant in Indonesia, resulting in the downfall of candidates in their gubernatorial elections. This environment has apparently made the business of fake news lucrative. An investigation by Indonesian police uncovered a syndicate making money off the spread of fake news and hoaxes in the country.

Three suspects from the Saracen group were arrested for the publication of hate speech and disinformation online which the group allegedly sold to prospective buyers. The group is also reportedly behind several fake accounts used to propagate hate and fake news on social media. Members of the group are facing charges under the Information and Electronic Transactions (ITE) Law.

Another case under this law involves the recent arrest of a woman for spreading a “defamatory” meme of House of Representatives (DPR) Chairman Setya Novanto. The case has been criticized for the broad application of the law, deemed as repressive of criticism against government.


Malaysia launched a debunking site called sebenarnya.my (sebenarnya means “actually” in Bahasa Malaysia). The initiative was launched by Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission (MCMC), a regulatory body.  

In a report by the New Straits Times, MCMC chief operating officer, Dr Mazlan Ismail said the platform is an avenue for ministries and governments to debunk disinformation or make clarifications: “MCMC provides the platform to be used by all the 21 ministries to explain any issues which had been made viral. Previously, each ministries need to move on its own to make that explanation. The portal also plays as a role to be a repository and an archive for fake news which had involved the public’s interest and the nation.”

The MCMC also launched an initiative to teach media literacy, responsible internet use, and digital safety through its Klik Dengan Bijak Programme. ‘Klik Dengan Bijak’ roughly translates to “click wisely” or “click with care”.


Myanmar’s Aung San Suu Kyi has been quoted as saying “fake news” has been fanning conflict over the Rohingya crisis. (READ: Myanmar’s Suu Kyi slams ‘misinformation’ over Rohingya crisis)

While the Muslim group has been a victim of violence and neglect on the ground, they’re also facing attacks online, as social media platforms become venues for vicious hate speech directed toward the minority.

Even those sympathetic to the plight of the Rohingya aren’t safe from fake news. Earlier this year Turkish Deputy Prime Minister Mehmet Simsek tweeted several photos calling on the international community to take action on the crisis. The photos turned out to be misleading and from different events. 

Given this environment, it has been difficult to get to the bottom of the crisis which involves verification of the photos being spread by different groups. It doesn’t help either that the Suu Kyi administration has refused to grant visas to members of a United Nations fact-finding mission to investigate the conflict.


In the Philippines, the use of bots and trolls to manipulate public opinion has been well documented.

The legitimization of hate speech by the current administration through the appointment of social media personalities supportive of the President, and the move to accredit bloggers to cover the President are also unique to the Philippines.

These social media personalities have not just been vocal supporters of the administration and its policies but have also been known for their targeted attacks against members of the media and individuals critical of the administration. (READ: State-sponsored hate: The rise of the pro-Duterte bloggers)

APPOINTED. Pro-Duterte blogger Mocha Uson has been appointed assistant secretary of the Presidential Communications Operations Office. Malacañang file photo

The Duterte administration’s appointments of these bloggers have become controversial as they have been repeatedly criticized for incendiary and misleading social media posts.

In October, the Senate committee on public information and mass media conducted a hearing on fake news


Taking their cue from Trump’s decision to exclude news outlets like CNN and the New York Times from a media briefing, some members of the Cambodian administration have used fake news to justify the crackdown on press freedom and news outlets.

report by The Phnom Penh Post quotes a Facebook post by Council of Ministers spokesman Phay Siphan: “Freedom of expression must be located within the domain of the law and take into consideration national interests and peace. The president’s decision has nothing to do with democracy or freedom of expression.”

When asked about what will happen to media entities that won’t listen to his warning, Siphan answered: “Shut it down, very simple. Expel them.”

Prime Minister Hun Sen used the same rhetoric to counter human rights coverage and criticism in Cambodia: “Anarchic human rights are rights that destroy the nation. I hope foreign friends understand this.”


In 2014, Laos enacted a law that enforced even stricter control over media in the country. The decree has been criticized for having vague stipulations that could be used to stifle free speech.

An example is Article 9, according to a report by The Diplomat

Article 9 explicitly bans the posting and sharing of content that feature the following:

  • Disseminating false and misleading information against the Lao People’s Revolutionary Party, undermining the peace, independence, sovereignty, unity, and prosperity of Lao PDR
  • Circulating information that encourages citizens to become involved in terrorism, murder, and social disorder
  • Supporting online campaigns that seek to divide solidarity among ethnic groups and countries
  • Spreading information that distorts the truth or tarnishes the dignity and rights of individuals, sectors, institutions or organizations
  • Sharing of comments whose content are in line with the above-mentioned prohibitions

The wording of the law is problematic in that criticism of the government may easily be painted as a threat to national security.


Singapore has strict laws which have been criticized as restrictive of the legitimate exercise of the right to freedom of expression. These laws have been applied to posts and entries made online.

In 2015, a Filipino was jailed for sedition after allegedly making racist comments on Facebook.

SENTENCED TO PRISON. Filipino Nurse Edz Ello, an OFW in Singapore was fired from his job for allegedly making these racist comments on Facebook. Screenshot from Facebook

In the same year, 16-year-old blogger Amos Yee was arrested for a YouTube video criticizing Singapore’s founding father, Lee Kuan Yew.

In 2016, An Australian woman, Ai Takagi and her Singaporean husband Yang Kaiheng, were sentenced to jail for fabricated stories on their website The Real Singapore. According to a report by The New York Times, District Judge Salina Ishak said that the articles “were intended from the outset to provoke unwarranted hatred against foreigners in Singapore.”

There are now legislative efforts in Singapore that will focus on the prevention and criminalization of spreading fake news, according to Channel News Asia. Government polls show that more than 90% of Singaporeans support stricter laws against the propagation of disinformation, but only around half of their surveyed subjects could identify what fake news online is.

While still in the initial drafting stages, the considerations revolve around criminalizing the malicious spread of news, as well as its for-profit arrangements. 


In Thailand, a social media platform like Facebook has been a new avenue for the government to enforce its archaic and repressive lese majeste laws.

In 2015, a woman was sentenced to 9 years in prison for royal defamation on Facebook. A court official was quoted as saying, “From her Facebook posts, she was found guilty of defaming the monarchy, threatening state security and violations of the computer crimes act.”

Recently, 5 men were also charged for sharing Facebook posts by an exiled dissident. Facebook faced threats of being banned from the country because of “illegal” posts on the site. The government backed down on this threat after Facebook agreed to remove the posts.


Facebook has committed to working with the Vietnamese government to take down content it deems to be in violation of domestic laws. However, this move has been criticized as a form of censorship of government criticism.

Vietnam has also imposed stricter punishments for “antistate propaganda” or “reactionary ideologies” on social media.

But Don Le, from Viet Tan, a Vietnamese pro-democracy group, said that the Vietnamese government has realized that banning Facebook isn’t doable: “The Vietnamese government has recognized that social media sites like Facebook can no longer be blocked in Vietnam so they have taken the information wars to social media countering citizen news with their own form of news and misinformation.”

Le added that disinformation on social media is common in Vietnam, with some of it propagated by the government itself: “Little sourcing of information and tweaks in names of sites and social media pages helps produce misinformation which can be quickly spread across social media. An independent journalist organization (Independent Journalists Association of Vietnam) recently set up an online news site named Viet Nam Thoi Bao. To counter this, government supporters created an online news site with the same name (Viet Nam Thoi Bao) to smear independent news and information as well as defame activists or organizations supportive of human rights and social rights. Many people have often been confused by the two sites and shared ‘news’ without realizing it was misinformation.”

“The Vietnamese government hires hundreds of ‘public opinion shapers’ to monitor and direct online discussions and spread misinformation to netizens. Citizen journalists and human rights defenders and organizations are often the target of these attacks, with misinformation used to defame them.”

What’s next?

The unique context of the Southeast Asian region is that fake news and misinformation operate within frameworks where there are existing laws that already inhibit freedom of expression. This leads to the conflation of “fake news” with citizens’ fundamental rights to criticize government policy.

Legaspi of SEAPA said that weak democratic institutions can get in the way of efforts to curb the problem: 
“The positive side to all these is that the term fake news is also a convenient handle to draw attention to this practice, and call for accountability from government. The use of official funds to support these efforts must be called out. Unfortunately, few countries can do this because of weak democratic institutions. The prevalence of patronage also means that authorities usually will not act on legitimate complaints against their political communications machinery.”

“The sad reality is that for many countries in Southeast Asia, the fight against fake news is linked to the fight for greater freedom of expression, and therefore democracy. Presently, democratic freedoms are at a retreat in the region, so we have to fight harder.”

Social media platforms have become a space for criticism in authoritarian regimes where speaking out against the government is heavily punished. However, Legaspi said that these companies eventually had to acquiesce to government demands: “While lobbying with internet giants can work in some cases to protect the voices of the political opposition and civil society, the commitment of tech companies to protect free speech online has been weakened by their desire to protect their bottomline of protecting the local market. Previously, they were very public in their support for the principle of free speech. Now, they merely “follow the law” to acquiesce to government demands to block certain groups/users/sites because national laws are violated, even if these laws are repressive.”

For Southeast Asia, struggle against disinformation and fake news goes hand-in-hand with the fight to keep democratic spaces online open. The question then boils down to: How do we find that delicate balance between holding those behind the spread of disinformation and hateful rhetoric accountable, while protecting the right to freedom of expression? – with reports from Marguerite de Leon/Rappler.com


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